The Manufacturing Price Component
A staggering 40% of a typical end-product's selling price is determined by manufacturing costs. For any company involved in the manufacture or production of goods it's therefore crucial that the manufacturing process be as efficient as possible. To achieve this, firms have to constantly watch their operations and find new ways to streamline to ensure they're competitive enough to survive in both local and global markets. So how can 3D printing help?
What is 3D Printing?
Let's start from the beginning. Traditional manufacturing techniques are 'subtractive' in nature. In other words, they take a block of material, and shape it with a cutting tool until the form of the intended product is achieved (rather like the statues in the photo opposite).
To produce a complex product with moving parts using this method is impossible. The only way to get around it is to first produce the component 'dumb' parts - and then assemble them into the 'smarter' whole - either manually or using an automated assembly process. Either way, the process is time consuming and expensive.
3D printing in contrast, is an 'additive' manufacturing process. There is no initial 'block' to be milled down or shaped. Instead, the object is created from nothing - by jetting liquid materials, successively, layer upon layer and then hardening them upon contact. One of the main advantages of this technique is that you can produce complex moving assemblies in one go - skipping the assembly process altogether (see the folding tool in the photo opposite for example - printed in a single step on the Objet30 destkop 3D printer).
How? If you imaging a print head moving back and forth over a printed page - the print head knows exactly where to drop the ink and where to skip over the blank spaces. It's the same for printing a solid object. A 3D printer, whether using inkjet print heads or lasers, or even glue - can simply skip over the required design gaps that results in the eventual moving parts.
Where's the Advantage of 3D Printing?
- No Cutting Tool Constrains
Firstly, subtractive techniques such as milling are limited by the constraints of the cutting tool. There are a number of constraints to take into account including limits to the depth of cut, force and maximum feed. All of these factors affect the geometrical limits of the end-product being shaped.
- No Production Line Costs
Then there's the machinery involved. Let's take the example of a bicycle chain. A bicycle chain, because of its moving parts and complex geometries, cannot be chiseled from an iron block. The design must first be broken down into component parts that are manufactured and then assembled. And to achieve this you need a substantial number of machines.
For example, you need some punch presses to cut and press your steel into the shape of your various links. After the actual hardening of the steel in the oven and polishing, the parts go into another machine where they are packed in a tube and held in line with the other chain components. Another machine then presses in pins to secure the assembly. Then grippers move the finished chain section down the line. An inspection machine then checks the assembly for flaws. Then a machine with a laser tool measures the precise point for cutting, after which an automated blade precisely cuts the chain. The final step is a machine that inserts and secures the master link to connect one end of the chain to the other.
To manufacture a standard 56 inch bicycle chain containing 57 links, you need a complete production line that first cuts 570 parts, (114 inner links, 114 outer links, 114 rollers, 114 rivets and 114 bushings) and then assembles them all into the final chain.
- No Assembly!
Now contrast this with a 3D printer which can produce the entire bicycle chain at once with no assembly whatsoever. The trouble is that we've been used to imagining products being assembled the 'traditional' way for so long that the mind can be repulsed by the sheer simplicity of 3D printing.
And of course, because the 3D-printed bicycle chain is created additively, from the 'ground-up' so to speak, there is no 'start' or 'finish' to the chain in the traditional manufacturing sense.. and therefore no need for a master-link to join both ends of the loop. (see the bicycle chain in the photo opposite - printed on the Objet desktop 3D printer - note the absence of any master link).
There is a certain element of 'suspension of disbelief' required by the viewer when watching a bicycle chain emerge fully-assembled from a 3D printer!
This is, of course, just an illustration of the capabilities of 3D printing. A real bicycle chain, whether produced by conventional manufacturing or additive manufacturing still needs to be plated against rust and burnished for strength.
Because of the nature of 3D printing, which uses liquid photopolymers that are hardened, or powder or plastic that is fused together, the final result is not yet comparable to traditional manufacturing results. But this is changing rapidly as the major 3D printing companies continue to invest in the necessary material and chemical R&D work.
Within the next twenty years the materials available for 3D printing will be as strong, if not stronger than many of the materials used in regular manufacturing today. At that point, if not sooner, we will see 3D printing emerge as a truly competitive alternative to the conventional manufacturing process - or at least as a strong niche competitor in industries where customization or short batch runs are a strong component of the company's value-added offering.
So How can 3D Printing Help Reduce Manufacturing Costs Today?
Wedged somewhere in between the CAD and the CAM, traditional prototyping is an expensive and time-consuming part of the product development process.That's why many of the top design, engineering and manufacturing firms today are using 3D printing in the product prototyping stage - to rapidly produce accurate models of the intended end product before they are sent to manufacturing.
In a 2010 study entitled 'Cost Saving Strategies for Engineering: Using Simulation to Make Better Decisions', researchers found that 70% of the most profitable companies are more likely than their competitors to use simulation methods to ensure they get their designs right the first time around. Although the exact report deals with 'simulation', the same principle applies for 3D printing for rapid prototyping purposes.
By using an in-house 3D printer to physically recreate their product designs, companies can more fully analyze and understand their intended product early on in the design process. Such companies are then more likely to reduce their overall set-up and manufacturing costs by uncovering problems sooner rather than later; avoiding the exorbitant cost of late stage engineering re-work and re-tooling.
The catch is, of course, that the 3D printer used must accurately capture all the detailed nuances of the intended end product. For industries where the look and feel of the product is as valuable as its end-function, it's therefore essential that the prototype mimic the real thing as closely as possible. For this there is only one technology that adequately combines the necessary accuracy and material versatility in a single machine - inkjet-based multi-material 3D printing.
Only inkjet-based 3D printing can mix different material properties - say flexible and rigid materials and color shades - and designate them to the different elements within the same prototype (see the wheel prototype in this photo - combining a rigid rim and rubber-like tire - printed on the Objet Connex multi-material 3D printer in a single step). The end look and feel of the inkjet-based 3D printing process is, in many cases, almost impossible to tell apart from the real thing.
Implications for the Future
Within the wider sphere of our global economy and the recently much-noted collapse of traditional manufacturing in the West, 3D printing technology offers a glimpse of a future based around a smaller, more agile productive capacity. A capacity centered more around private individuals, entrepreneurs and innovators who, leveraging the creative power of 3D printing, can now leap through the 'prototyping barrier' to get their products successfully to market at lower cost.
We already see the seeds of this revolution taking shape in the business models of companies such as Quirky - who, using their in-house 3D printing capability, offers anyone with an innovative product idea the chance to rapidly and efficiently turn it into a functioning prototype and eventually a profitable end-product.
While the final manufacturing itself may still be outsourced to established producers or more labor-efficient markets, the ideas themselves - and the revenues generated from them, can now be reclaimed by everyone and anyone with the potential for free and creative thought.
For me at least, the implications for the re-invigoration and even re-invention of the American Dream immediately springs to mind.